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Thee Oh Sees - Castlemania

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Artist: Thee Oh Sees

Album: Castlemania

Label: In the Red

Review date: Aug. 10, 2011

The art for Castlemania shows a scarred, green goblin hand grasping a Playskool toy telephone, sharpened monster fingernails closing on an earpiece meant for toddler babble. In a way, it’s the album’s aesthetic in a nutshell, an antic, super-simplified sense of play juxtaposed with death and decay in a cartoon version of the danse macabre. Ohsees mainstay John Patrick Dwyer jitters St. Vitus style though manic 1960s pop landscapes, his grin either the pure pleasure of garage rock abandon or the way lips pull back from a rotting skull – or maybe both.

Dwyer recorded most of Castlemania alone, working for the last time in his Haight Street studio before rising rent forced him out. Regular Oh See Bridget Dawson dropped by with Sandwitches singer Heidi Alexander at one point, the two of them contributing softer, mildly psychedelic harmonies to the album’s last few tracks. But primarily,Castlemania is the work of one man with the world closing in, calling out the grim reaper for a final pogo across a beer-sticky floor.

Not that Castlemania is particularly sparse. Dwyer plays all the usual full-band instruments, guitar, bass, drums and keyboards, plus a smattering of extras, like glockenspiel, harmonica, free-skronk saxophone and hippie flute. He sings call and response with himself, harmonizes with himself, spits out the count for himself, even mutters “sorry,” apparently to himself, in late album track “Idea of a Rubber Dog.” Thee Oh Sees, as a band, is a beautiful thing, one of the best live experiences to be had, but Castlemania demonstrates that the band lives in Dwyer’s head, and he doesn’t really need other people to make it happen.

So, when circle-of-life anthem “I Need Seed” breaks forth in three descending chords copped directly from “My Generation,” Dwyer alone takes on every garage band ever rallied in a basement. His mic-altered baritone sounds at once jolly and dangerous as he considers death and dissolution, grass and trees pushing out of his deceased and rotting corpus. It’s a move that Walt Whitman tried in Leaves of Grass, but not, as far as we know, in a Cookie Monster growl.

Throughout the first three-quarters of the album, Dwyer manages a weirdly compelling balance of existential dread and hedonism. “Stinking Cloud” pits straight, on-the-fours keyboard banging against mid-1960s Moonish fills and some sort of simulated strings. The result is jaunty Nuggets-esque psychodelia, sunnily disturbing as its chorus proclaims “Dead, dead, dead to the top of his head.” “Corrupted Coffin” splices a sped-up “Drop Out Boogie” vamp with atonal, free-jazzing sax squalls that ultimately overwhelm the manic beat. “Pleasure Blimps” could be a late Beatles psych b-side, as it spins hazily through bells and chimes and ringing, jangling guitars … except for those lines about “stripping skin and plowing flesh aside.” These songs whistle right past the graveyard and into the grave itself.

Beginning with “The Horse Was Lost,” Castlemania takes a turn toward the pastoral. “Horse” consists almost entirely of flute, playing a very simple four-bar pattern, over and over, atop a flickering background of muted noise. There is nearly a minute of dead air at its end, which serves as a barrier, perhaps, to the folkier, dreamier final three songs of the album. Dawson and Alexander show up here to break Dwyer’s solitude, singing in harmony on “I Won’t Hurt You,” and for back-up duties on “If I Stay Too Long,” with its beautiful drum fill and sing-along refrain, “If I stay too long, it’s because I love you.” “What Are We craving” closes the disc, also slow, also female-sung, also noticeably less antic and more centered.

In comparing the first three-quarters of the album with the final Dawson and Alexander-assisted four, you might conclude that Dwyer needs collaborators to keep him level and sane and hold the demons at bay. Still, there’s no avoiding the fact that the first 12 cuts are stronger and better and more interesting than the last ones. Holing up by himself, worrying about money, obsessing with death and letting the walls close in is probably not good for Dwyer as a human being, but it’s certainly good for Castlemania.

By Jennifer Kelly

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